The Lore of American Exceptionalism

Jorge Castañeda’s new book, America Through Foreign Eyes (Oxford, 2020), invites readers to consider the lore of American Exceptionalism. What exactly is it? Does it still exist? And if so, can Americans yet claim it with a straight face while Donald Trump is president?

The author of this 250-page book offers a layered perspective. A Mexican national who has spent decades living and working in the US (and in other parts of the world), Castañeda knows the nuances of American culture and language yet manages to maintain the detached viewpoint of an outsider. Only once did I notice him using first person plural – “we” – when talking about the country he knows so well north of the Rio Grande.

America’s exceptionalism, he writes, started with its economic creation of a middle class in the latter part of the nineteenth century. While Germany was the first country to offer a state-sponsored social safety net under Bismarck in the 1880s, America’s DNA was cast: a populous middle class de facto was in and of itself a social safety net. While most European nations’ class stratifications persisted, America made the argument that a country’s economic engine, and consequent social mobility, would provide the necessary benefits for its populace.

Of course, many Americans were excluded from the blessings inherent to the establishment of a middle class: Blacks, Latinos, Chinese immigrants, Native Americans. More on this type of exceptionalism below. The devastations of the Great Depression forced the US to institute social safety nets in the 1930s. America, as a society, has struggled ever since with the necessity of state-sponsored social programs. Castañeda reminds us that – another form of exceptionalism – the US is the only one of the thirty-five industrialized nations in the world today that doesn’t offer universal healthcare to its citizenry. Try to fight a pandemic without a national healthcare safety net.

Castañeda, however, sees that American Exceptionalism is a pendulum that swings both ways. The emergence of the world’s first middle-class society (again, restricted mostly to whites), produced an American “mass culture.” This mass culture was a form of social and economic egalitarianism enviable to the rest of the world. Products from automobiles and refrigerators to radios and televisions were not solely the providence of elites, but of all.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, most of the states in the union jumped on the compulsory public education bandwagon, while long-established European societies clung to idea that education was the mainstay of elites. The literacy rate of 88 percent for American whites in 1870 was comparably much higher than that of British, French, and German citizens. Additionally, the widespread proliferation of free public libraries was an American innovation. The US was the first country, Castañeda illustrates, to favor its middle classes and not just its elites. This was and is exceptional, in the best of ways.

But therein lies the rub.

The historic and deeply-engrained restrictions of Blacks and browns from this egalitarian favor is anathema to Castañeda. Continuing the above comparison, the literacy rate for Blacks in America in 1870 is estimated at 20 percent, rising to 70 percent by 1910. Castañeda references other foreign observers – 150 years’ worth – similarly calling out this society’s racism, describing it as “the greatest condemnation of the American experience . . . the most flagrant and hateful contradiction between the promise of the country at birth and its reality nearly two hundred and fifty years later.”

This is a horrific exceptionalism. Castañeda points out a reality I had not previously considered: While the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Belgians all enforced and exploited slavery, only the United States and Brazil – of today’s industrialized nations – did so on their own land. This odiousness, much more than a past blemish, actively plagues this land.

Latino and Asian immigrants, he writes, have had better success than Blacks at integrating into American society. Why? While these immigrants have suffered deep exclusions, neither group was institutionally enslaved. As one of many examples to illustrate racism’s long reach, he states that the intergenerational transfer of wealth – 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “get a $20,000 loan from your parents” – is essentially non-existent for Black families in this country.

America, he writes, is exceptional because it allowed and promoted equality for many. Yet, America’s persistent and centuries-long exclusions towards Blacks and other minorities nullifies foundational American credos such as “all are created equal” and “liberty and justice for all.” Additionally, American economic inequality, currently on a forty-year run, is making America like the countries of yesterday’s Europe and like many other countries today where elites enjoy and cultivate favor at the expense of the lower and middle classes.

Castañeda also dives deep into explanations on America’s current political gridlock, arguing that our political system – its original participants a relatively small group of white landowners – is incompatible with today’s entrenched inequality and surging heterogeneity of the voting populace.

An admirer, participant in and benefactor of the American experiment, Castañeda bemoans the dulling of America’s exceptional shine. No longer favoring the middle class, America’s inequalities make her like so many other countries in the world. She will need, he writes, to forge ahead as the other industrialized countries have done by offering additional social safety nets. The coronavirus’s far-reaching effects upon America’s public health and economy – exacerbated by Trump’s inept and vacant leadership – have verified Castañeda’s views which received their final edits months before Trump claimed, in February, that the virus would simply “disappear.”

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

2 thoughts on “The Lore of American Exceptionalism

  1. Excellent article on what looks like a great book. I had missed the distinction that the US and Brazil were the only nations embracing slavery as an economic tool on its own land. I think the difference noted between racial groups that have never been slaves (Latino and Asian) and the African Americans is a much overlooked issue by many who point to this as a character issue.


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